French chanson

Cabrel sings Dylan
New album, Vise le Ciel ou Bob Dylan revisité.

08/11/2012 -

For as long as he can remember, Bob Dylan has been a source of admiration and inspiration for Francis Cabrel. At the end of this year, the release of Cabrel’s thirteenth studio album, Vise le ciel ou Bob Dylan revisité coincides with thirty-five years spent in the business. RFI Musique takes a look at the album.

In the early days, Francis Cabrel used to tell interviewers that English was the only subject he paid any attention to at school because it helped him understand the songs of his idol, Bob Dylan. A passion that started with Like a Rolling Stone on the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.


Comme une femme
Francis Cabrel
Vise le ciel
(Sony Music / Columbia)

Hardly surprising, then, to hear of a new album comprising eleven Bob Dylan tracks adapted into French by Cabrel himself and interpreted in his unmistakable Gallic accent.
Unsurprising, because it’s not the first time. On his two previous records, Les beaux dégâts and Des roses et des orties, Shelter from the Storm was reworked as S’abriter de l’orage and She belongs to me became the French version, Elle m’appartient. Unsurprising, because if you prick up your ears when he does a sound check before a concert, most often you’ll notice that Cabrel is using one of Dylan’s songs. And then there’s the fact that on either side of the Atlantic, both musicians have worked with the same guitarist in the shape of Freddy Koella.
The album is called Vise le ciel (aim for the sky), which is how we felt asking for an interview from a singer who shies away from media coverage. Predictably, we drew a blank, so we sifted through the words of the happy few who’ve had the privilege of doing so, to learn that it was lack of inspiration that spurred him to turn to Dylan’s repertoire.
Dylan, Aufray, Cabrel

Even when you see it in black and white, it seems hard to believe that the southern French sun and wind could have dried up Cabrel’s pen. And clearly they haven’t, because despite the current climate, the poetry is still flowing fast and strong.
Adapting Dylan’s lyrics into French is a tough nut to crack. Others have tried before him, like Hugues Aufray, who’s adapted dozens of Dylan numbers, striving to reproduce almost exactly the same musical atmosphere, either with literal translations and similar word sounds, or interpreting more loosely, even if it means taking a few liberties (e.g. on N’y pense plus tout est bien, his version of Don’t think twice it’s alright).
The original tracks reel off ideas rapidly, often comprising over a dozen verses in each number. Like his predecessor, Cabrel has cut and combined the verses and adjusted them to suit him better. Unlike Aufray, he doesn’t just focus on Dylan’s hits, but seeks out lesser-known numbers. Dignity (Dignité), originally recorded for the album Oh Mercy (1989), wasn’t ultimately released for another five years on a compilation. Blind Willie Mc Tell,composed by Dylan as a tribute to the American blues guitarist during the Infidels period, was also released at a later date in the first volumes of his Bootleg series.
Two worlds come together

Francis Cabrel
Francis Cabrel

The eleven tracks include some hits, like the wonderful All Along the Watchtower (En haut de la tour du guet) made popular by Jimi Hendrix and covered by so many others (Eric Clapton, Neil Young, U2, to name a few); Quinn the Eskimo, with an atmosphere closer to the versions by Manfred Mann and the Grateful Dead; Gotta serve somebody (Il faudra que tu serves quelqu’un); and It’s all over now Baby Blue (Tout se finit là, Bébé Bleu), which at the time was almost sung more often by Joan Baez than Dylan himself.
Only two of the titles in his selection had already been reworked by his predecessor: Just like a woman (Comme une femme) and Ballad of Hollis Brown (L’histoire d’Hollis Brown). Cabrel serves up his own reading of these numbers, and with them his own take on women. The fairer sex may have inspired the Frenchman as much as it did the American, but the lyrics express his fascination in a different way, here and elsewhere.
This may be what sets him apart the most from Dylan in this adaptation. Less of an axe to grind, more easy going, perhaps more in love in the broadest sense: in his version of Just like a woman, the woman “reigns”.
The very idea of Bob Dylan in French has a sniff of heresy about it, and some of these adaptations are clearly better than others. Thankfully, though, in this case the lyrics are in the hands of one of France’s favourite wordsmiths, a man whose songs have always contained a taste of that particular America. And when he replaces the harmonica with the accordion, you only have to listen to his version of I want you to be totally convinced. When you think about it, who else could have got away with singing a line that goes "Je te veux/Tellement fort" (I want you/So badly) and remained totally credible?
Francis Cabrel Vise le ciel ou Bob Dylan revisité (Columbia) 2012
Francis Cabrel Official site


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